12 February 2014

My 90-Day Challenge – One third of the way

milestone Korean challenge

On January 15 of this year, I committed to spend the next 90 days in intensive study in order to learn Korean, or at least significantly improve my Korean language skills. This meant stepping up my daily language learning activities from roughly one hour a day, to three or four hours a day, giving me a total for the three months of roughly 300 hours.

I was not starting from scratch. I first studied Korean about 7 years ago, about one hour a day or so, mostly listening and reading. I have also done short spurts of Korean at LingQ, mixed in with my study of Russian, Czech, Portuguese, Romanian and other languages at LingQ over the past 6 or 7 years.

But this was to be different. I wanted to devote myself to more intensive study of Korean in order to make a breakthrough. I was tired of being able to say a few things in Korean, just to impress some Korean friends, and then not being able to understand most of what was said back to me. I also wanted to get to a level where I could listen to podcasts, read Korean newspapers, and even watch Korean drama on TV!

This was not to be just my own challenge but I invited LingQ members and my YouTube channel viewers to participate in this project. This was the genesis of the 90-Day Challenge at LingQ. To date almost 2000 people have joined me in the challenge. I hope they are enjoying the experience.

I am now almost one third the way through. I started 4 weeks ago. This is a good time to take stock of what I have learned and what I have achieved, and what I plan to do for the next two months. Hopefully my experience, as well as the experience of others who are taking part in the challenge, can help language learners everywhere achieve their goals. We will probably want to do this again, if it proves successful.

Some issue to ponder

Finding the time

I am in the lucky position of being self-employed and semi-retired. But I am busy. I still have business meetings. I play old-timer’s hockey three times a week. I like to go cross country skiing on the local mountains. I have a social life and a family life. So I cannot devote myself to language learning the way I did when, as a bachelor diplomat, I studied Mandarin Chinese over 45 years ago. At that time I was an employee of the Canadian government and my full-time job was to study Mandarin.

This 90-Day Challenge is different, even though I am applying many of the techniques that I developed way back then, and which I have refined over the years while learning other languages.

The first issue is finding the time.

Not only am I committed to more intensive study of Korean, but I am also vlogging daily and keeping a diary, while also maintaining this blog. Here are some of the ways that I have been able to stay on track.

Don’t study, just learn

Studying is hard work, and often amounts to an uphill struggle to force knowledge into our reluctant brains. It is hard to maintain this activity except for short spurts, in preparation for exams and the like. So I don’t study. I don’t do exercises. I don’t try to memorize rules or tables. I just expose myself to the language in ways that become more and more enjoyable as I progress in the language.

At least half of my daily study time is listening. I listen while doing household chores, while exercising, while cross country skiing, while sitting in the car, and elsewhere.

Some people say they can’t concentrate on listening to a foreign language while doing other chores. My answer to them is: ”Don’t concentrate, just listen”. Of course we fade in and out. Sometimes we understand more and sometimes we understand less. It does not matter. The more we do this, the better we get at it, and the more we accept that it is OK not to be focused all the time. It is simply not possible to do so.

If done right, this exposure to the language, through somewhat passive listening, is extremely valuable. It is my major language learning activity. I could not learn languages if I could not listen while doing other chores.

In order to have a chance to understand what we are listening to, it is important to have access to transcripts. We improve our comprehension by reading what we are listening to, and by listening and reading the same content more than once. Mostly I use LingQ for this.

Make use of dead time, even a little bit count

If I have small task to do at home, I grab my MP3 player and ear-phones. I keep one or several books by my bed and even by the toilet (Yes, sorry to be a little vulgar here).

I have my iPhone with me at all times, and if I have to wait somewhere I can either read, or listen, or do Flash Cards, using the iLingQ app on the iPhone.

It does not matter when you get the learning in. Three or four chunks of 5-10 minute learning sessions quickly add up. Even three minutes of exposure here and there is an opportunity to keep the new language fresh in your brain.

Vary the nature of the activity to avoid burn-out

The brain likes variety and novelty. If you only study the same material over and over again, in the hope of “mastering” it, you may burn out. You will encounter the law of diminishing returns.

Try to vary the nature of the learning activity, the nature of the content you are learning from, and the difficulty level.

If you feel like listening, listen. If you feel like reading, read. If you feel like watching a TV program in the target language, do so.

If you are still at the stage where you are mostly using beginner material, try to find different sources covering similar beginner vocabulary and phrasing. That is what I have done with Korean, going back to the beginner books I bought 7 years ago.

If you are intermediate, intersperse some easy material with more difficult content. Challenge yourself to new and interesting content even while you are still working with material where your comprehension is about 60-70%. It is natural to want to complete lessons, but understanding everything in a lesson is not necessary. When you feel the urge, move on to something else.

Move to authentic content as soon as you can

To learn a language you have to get closer to it, make it part of you. What is foreign, strange and inhospitable has to start to feel comfortable, “homey”, ours. The more intensively we study, the sooner we can integrate the new language and feel at home in it. I am starting to feel this now with my Korean.

The language of beginner courses is artificial. It is not spoken by real people who have real and meaningful things to say. It is language created for the learner. Such language content has the advantage of being spoken more slowly than in the real word. The vocabulary is more limited. You have a sense of comfort in that it is easier to understand. By all means use this kind of material to get started.

Soon, however, in order to get make the language yours, you need to venture into the world of the real language as spoken by real people. You need to hear or read what the speakers of that language have to say. What are the daily preoccupations of Korean people, for example? It is difficult and occasionally frustrating to move out of the comfort of the learner environment. But it is necessary.

With my Korean I started with small amounts of difficult content using our LingQ library, I was able to find many courses that were difficult for me, yet attracted my interest. I started with a small number, and read them and listened to them quite a few times. I also started reading articles from a Korean newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, which I imported into LingQ. This gave me an idea of what people are thinking and saying and doing in Korea.

At the same time I regularly review easier material, grammar patterns, or starter books like Assimil and others. Variety keeps things fresh and stimulating.

Whatever the level we are at, there will be contexts or structures in the language that seem strange, even illogical. This is certainly the case in Korean. This is because the language and its logic are strange, or at least strange to us. But they are quite reasonable and normal in the target language. We just have to get used to them. This takes time, but with enough exposure things start to become clearer. We need to believe that this is going to happen for us, even as we are struggling.

Find your “catalytic converter” and stay with it

In every language I have found content items where the interest level was high, the difficulty level just manageable, and the sound and voice quality pleasing. These have been audio books, podcasts, radio programs and the like. For Russian it was audio books of Tolstoy or Turgenev or Kuprin for which I also had the transcripts, or Echo Moskvi with its daily interviews on topical subjects. For Czech it was the range of programs and podcasts from Czech Radio. The same was the case in other languages.

This pleasing, interesting and yet challenging material is what takes me through to the next level. The interest level keeps me engaged. The voice and sound quality, if they are really good, will enable me to listen over and over, even if I don’t fully understand. At first it seems at times as if I can only understand some short snippets when I listen, even though I hear the words clearly. Yet this constant exposure to high quality authentic content gradually forges a new level of association with the language in our brains. Bit by bit, the fog lifts, as we listen to our favourite language content. Eventually we listen less often to the same lesson. Soon we are in a position to attack other content of the same level. This content is the catalyst that converts us into comfortable listeners and readers of the language. Along the way we acquire a large vocabulary.

My search for this “catalytic converter” has been difficult in Korean. However, I think the recent courses placed in our library by member Imani, will fill this role. The timing is about right now. Let’s see where this takes me over the next month or so.

When you are ready, speak and speak a lot

My experience in learning Mandarin Chinese over 45 years ago was that exposure, intensive exposure it the key to rapid acquisition of new language habits.

So where does speaking fit in? It is very important.

With my stepped up learning activities in the challenge, I have more time to speak with my tutors at LingQ. Since I like my learning activities to be meaningful, I am not a fan of speaking in the target language before I have the ability to understand what is said, and have enough words to have a meaningful conversation. On the other hand, I am not starting Korean from scratch, so I was able to start speaking quite early on in the challenge. For the first few weeks I mainly wanted to recover to the level that I had achieved before. Then I started speaking.

For this first month or for the first 100 hours or so, my speaking amounts to 3.8 hours or 3.8% of the total. Here you can compare my conversation with our LingQ tutor, Juhyun now, and a year ago.

As I enter the second month I intend to speak about 2-3 hours a week, with several of our LingQ tutors via Skype. They are an interesting group of individuals who provide stimulus, empathy and guidance. I hope to get in at least ten hours of speaking for the month or 10 % of my time. I am also going to try to arrange opportunities to get together with Korean speakers face to face, here in Vancouver. I would not want to do this with local Koreans, if I were not able to maintain at least a minimally intelligent level of conversation

If I look back on the first month, I feel that I am about where could expect to be. I would like to be further ahead, but the truth is that it takes time to learn a language, and to achieve the level of Korean that I set as my goal, good comprehension, oral and written, and a basic ability to have meaningful conversations.

I will report again in a month. I hope those of you who are taking the challenge are also finding success.

6 Comments

  1. Posted February 23, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Hi Steve,
    I just say that I was inspired by your dedication and work ethic to master your foreign language pursuits. I also wanted to thank you for creating LingQ. Although, I have been a member since 2009. ( I think), it was not until recently that I became re-committed to pursuing my language endeavors to become a genuine polyglot.

    Knowing that there is this vibrant community of language I
    enthusiasts is a real motivator. I look forward to following you and seeing you reach your goals. I am currently in my 90 day Russian challenge. Like you said time is always a tough adversary but as you said
    , it definitely can be done!

    Thanks again,

    lingQ fan
    Tim

  2. sara
    Posted February 26, 2014 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    hello steve – ive been listening to kimyoungha’s after hearing about it on your youtube and found the reading portion transcript (for the first story). if you’d like it, feel free to email me.

    • Posted March 6, 2014 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      Hi Sara, I have actually arranged to have the episodes transcribed, and have already received episode one and two. But thank you very much. These podcasts are great. Steve

  3. Posted March 26, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Using the language is the best way to get the fluency. The post is really very impressive and inspiring for language learners.

  4. Katie
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Maybe this can be your new challenge:

    I would like to tell you about on of the hardest languages to learn.
    Japanese and Chinese are obviously hard, but next one in the list – especially for english speakers – Estonian.

    There are nine vowels and within the entire language, there are 36 diphthongs.
    Examples of some words: öö, jäääär, kuuuurija.

    Estonian grammar has no gender. Estonian only has the present and the past tenses, no future tense. There’s also no progressive/continuous. There are no articles, baar means both a bar, the bar and bar.

    Estonian has no prepositions such as in, on, of, to, from etc. Instead, the preposition is part of the word itself (but at the end of the word, not beginning).

    Some words can mean almost everything. For example, “tee” means (1) a road, (2) tea, and (3) do! (imperative form)

    Estonian has a rigid case system. In case you forgot, a case system is where words inflect depending on their grammatical function in a sentence. And with 14 cases, that’s a lot to keep in mind. Consider case number four – the Sisseutlev – better known to English speakers as how to say “to someplace.” “To London” would become “Londonisse.” “To Tartu” would translate to “Tartusse.” It almost seems like a system presents itself, until you get “to Kuressaare” – “Kuressaarde,” “to Rakvere” – “Rakverre”, and “to Haapsalu” – “Haapsallu.” (local Estonian towns).

    When speaking the Estonian language, one should ordinarily put the stress on the first syllable. However, with Estonian being a language that contains many loanwords, or words from other countries, there are some words that maintain the stress on the second syllable instead.

    Some even say French has topped Estonian in terms of its difficulty due to its tricky pronunciation. What makes it even harder is the fact that it belongs to a completely different language group, the Finno-Ugric language group, which is wholly distinguished from the Indo-European languages, like Russian, English, Swedish, Portuguese, or even nearby Latvian. An example: It’s “two” in English, “dva” in Russian, “tva” in Swedish, “dois” in Portuguese, and in Latvian “divi.” In Estonian, it’s “kaks.”

    The many seemingly arbitrary exceptions to Estonian grammar rules also serve to make this language a challenge for English learners.

    One of the things foreigners will notice about Estonian language is that Estonians are constantly talking about sex. ‘Terviseks’ (a common toast which is sometimes translated as “for health” ), There is also ostmiseks and kasutamiseks, teadmiseks, parandamiseks and armastamiseks. All kinds of “seks”.

    And finally – this is how foreigner see estonian language:
    A long time ago, about 1000 or 1100 B.C. there were three Estonian guys sitting around the campfire. Their names were Billy, Ray and Duke (bet you didn’t know that these are real ancient Estonian names :) ). It was winter time and they were bored. Billy spoke first. “Ya know Ray, what we need is a new language”. “Damn straight!” said Ray, “Talkin’ this way is gettin’ boring and besides everybody almost understands us. We need a language that’s sooo crazy, soooooo complicated that nobody will ever understand what’s going on!” As the idea picked up steam, Duke piped up. “Let’s do it this way, that you can’t say he or she. That way you won’t know if your talkin’ about a man or a woman. Also, we gotta think up names for people that give no clue to foreigners about their gender, names that change with the grammar so you never know what to call somebody.” Ray nodded in approval “Yeah,” he said thoughtfully “that’s it. Then we can eliminate the future tense. Think of trying to ask someone out on a date when you can’t say the right name, whether it’s a boy or girl or when it is going to happen!”

    Billy, the smart one, was thinking in more technical terms already. “O.K., let’s make it this way, that when you learn a noun, you don’t have to learn just one word but FOURTEEN Yeah and instead of just saying that you are going to or from something, you have to change the noun in some weird way.” Now Ray was excited and spilled his beer. “Yeah Yeah! And..and.. the nouns can’t change the same way, let’s make like, a hundred different spelling groups that all change in different ways!” This appealed to Duke who added slyly, “Ya wanna make it real hard, a real nut-buster? Let’s make it so all the adjectives change, too. In boring old English, you say ‘five small, red houses’, ‘small, red houses’ and many small, red houses’. Small and red always stay the same but in our new language? Whoaaaa Nellie!” They exchange high fives all around and cracked a few beers. After that they started practicing how to say “Oh, you’re learning Estonian” without busting up laughing.

    That’s how Estonian came to be, honest!

  5. Posted April 17, 2014 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    I wish I had learned Korean the way you have. I lived there for three years and did not get in to my studies the way that I should have.

    If I could go back and live there again, I would definitely try and have more speaking practice with my Korean friends.

    Good luck with your studies!

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